The contrast between the North and South in antebellum America is so undeniably huge that it is almost impossible to imagine them as parts of the same country. As Mark Smith stated in his “Listening to the Heard World of Antebellum America”, “The quiet of the plantation acted as a counterpoint to the noise of urbanism and industrialism” (143). The South was associated with the silence and peacefulness of the farm, while the North reflected the progress of Industrialization and all the discord that came with it. However, Frederick Douglass shows in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass that this may not be the case to every ear. If the noises he heard were to be made into a soundtrack or put into a docudrama, they would be as follows.
While on the plantation in Easton, Maryland, the sounds of slavery and suffering constantly surround Frederick. First and foremost is that of labor. Throughout the entire day, there would be the light swish of the scythe cutting through the wheat, followed by the gentle drum of its fall. The next sound is the low melody of the slaves’ songs. The rumble of voices, soft but noticeable, saturated with the hurt and hopelessness of their owners’ situation permeates the heavy air in a constant hum. “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject” (Douglass 8). This desperation would be ever-present. Behind these quiet words and chants is a much louder shriek of pain and a cry for reprieve from such excruciating suffering; however, never are they heard in their true form. Next, over the voices is the intermediate crack of a whip. A white man overseeing the workers reminds them frequently of his presence with the sharp sound of leather snapping back on itself. Douglass describes one overseer: “His presence was painful; his eye flashed confusion; and seldom was his sharp, shrill voice heard, without producing horror and trembling to the ranks” (Douglass 13). These sounds carry to the ears of the slaves, causing the loudest sound of all to fill their minds. This is the sound of fear.
This is what Frederick Douglass lived with every day working on the field. When he arrives at New Bedford, Massachusetts, he hears a very different soundscape. “Almost every body seemed at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore” (Douglass 67). To the ear of a slave, the wharf is almost silent. There is no overarching tone of servitude and humiliation, only the thrum of comfortable labor. To Frederick, these were the sounds of contentment and freedom. No desperate song comes from the mouths of slave men and women, but silence from free human beings. “Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man” (Douglass 67). Everyone served only themselves, not the employer of the brusque men with their crackling, eager lashes. Instead of a soundscape based on pain and harm, it is the gentle scraping, creaking, and hammering of wholehearted work; the undertones of fury and hatred caused by the institution of slavery are not present. Frederick no longer sensed the utter roar of destitution and agony that was constant in the South, but instead only the gentle thrum of free men. The tones are strange and low to him; never before has he witnessed such a place.
To an escaped slave, the haven of the North is the depiction of peace and refuge, while over a hundred years later a white man makes a case for the same to be said of the slaveholding South. Regardless of this inconsistency, Frederick Douglass illustrates the contrast between his perception of the soundscapes of North and South in his autobiography, leaving a very clear picture of what he believed to be the heard worlds of antebellum America.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. Print.
Smith, Mark. “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America.” The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2003. 137-63. Print.